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Fourth Circuit Reinstates Prisoner’s Lawsuit Over Coerced Penis Surgery

by Lonnie Burton

On June 7, 2016, a unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit partially reinstated a lawsuit brought by a West Virginia state prisoner who claimed prison officials had coerced him to have surgery to remove marbles from his penis.

Prior to his incarceration at the Huttonsville Correctional Center, Adrian King had marbles implanted in his penis during a body modification procedure. When he was booked into Huttonsville in March 2012, he informed the processing officer of the marbles and a tattoo he also had on his penis. The guard told King, “This isn’t a pornographic video, put [your] clothes back on.” The presence of the marbles was thus never recorded in the booking report.

Several months later, King was called to medical for an examination after another prisoner informed staff that he saw King and other prisoners implanting marbles into their penises. Upon examination, the nurse verified that King’s marbles had not been recently implanted and there was no sign of infection.

Nevertheless, King was taken to segregation and told by a deputy warden to “get comfortable,” as he would remain in isolation, and have his parole eligibility revoked, until he agreed to have the marbles surgically removed.

Six months later King relented and the marbles were removed at a local hospital. He said he was coerced by the threat of continued segregation, thus his consent was not truly voluntary.

As a result of the surgery, King experienced tingling and numbness in his penis, pain where the marbles were removed, and emotional and psychological harm from the scar and the future social and sexual ostracization he anticipated following his release.

King originally filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, West Virginia before the case was removed to federal district court. The defendants moved to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), and a magistrate judge recommended granting the motion. The district court dismissed the lawsuit and King appealed.

The Fourth Circuit reversed, reinstating nearly all of the claims.

The appellate court first held that King had a clear Fourth Amendment right to be free of intrusional surgery, especially in a bodily area that is private and sensitive, where the state had shown little-to-no penological interest in having the marbles removed. The Court of Appeals also wrote that King’s consent was not “freely given,” and thus could not be used as cover to justify the Fourth Amendment violation.

The appellate court further found that King’s Eighth Amendment rights were violated because he alleged both physical injury and mental anguish, which he “never experienced until after he was forced into having his implants removed.” The Court of Appeals held the district court’s focus on the fact that a prisoner has no constitutional right to be free from segregation was misplaced, as King had argued that segregation was used as a threat to coerce him into the surgery.

Finding the surgery itself to be unreasonable, the Fourth Circuit also reinstated King’s Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim. “On this record, we find that surgery was an unreasonable ‘exaggerated response’” to the defendants’ concerns, the appellate court wrote.

King’s lawsuit was thus nearly fully reinstated, with the exception of the dismissal of several supervisory staff who were not personally involved in the violation of his rights. The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings. See: King v. Rubenstein, 825 F.3d 206 (4th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

King v. Rubenstein